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I was commenting to a colleague just the other day that, when it comes to the great Gothic horror novels of the 19th century, the ones which came to dominate large swathes of popular culture, we are talking about books which are largely unread (and, in the opinion of some people, largely unreadable). And yet we still know the stories, or think we do. To be fair, film-makers have been diligently trying to smuggle elements of the original novels back into films, in defiance of audience expectations, with honestly quite variable results. It’s getting to the point where you have to think quite hard about which elements of (for example) Frankenstein are original to Mary Shelley, and which were inserted into the story by James Whale, Terence Fisher, Kenneth Branagh, Jack Smight, et al.

So how do you approach a new version of Frankenstein these days? Do you go for the ultra purist approach and try to stay completely faithful to the novel, risking audience ennui and having to contend with the fact that it’s hardly structured like a modern screenplay? Or do you decide to be a bit more adventurous, running the risk of losing any trace of what makes this story distinctive in the first place?

On reflection, I would say the former is a much safer bet, but then I did watch Paul McGuigan’s Victor Frankenstein quite recently and it may have had an effect on me. Responsible for the script was Max Landis, who rose to prominence with the rather good Chronicle but has only really had his name on dud films ever since. (Am I giving away the end of this review too early? Hey ho.)

First indications that this is a slightly different take on Frankenstein come right at the start, when the film decides to eschew the traditional setting of central Europe in favour of a circus in Victorian London. Here we meet a nameless hunchback (Daniel Radcliffe), employed as a clown by the circus proprietor. Despite having no formal education or proper materials, the hunchback grows to become an awesomely talented self-taught doctor, anatomist and surgeon. No, honestly he does. The whole film is kind of predicated on this. (I did warn you.)

Well, anyway, the hunchback is in love with the circus trapeze artist (Jessica Brown Findlay), and as a result is quite upset when she falls off one night and nearly dies. However, the hunchback is able to save her with the help of a brilliant medical student who happens to be in the crowd, who goes by the name of Victor Frankenstein (James McAvoy).

Frankenstein instantly spots his new friend’s potential and recruits him as an assistant, freeing him from the circus, fixing his hunch, and employing him to do various fiddly bits of stitching to help his private medical research. To make life a bit easier, Frankenstein gives him the name of his suspiciously elusive flatmate, Igor, and the duo embark on a quest to uncover the deeper mysteries of life and death…

It’s a bit difficult to know where to start with Victor Frankenstein, except to say that you have to be somewhat amused by a film which opens with the voiceover line ‘You know this story’ before going on to depart almost entirely from Mary Shelley’s actual plot. Or, to put it another way, any Frankenstein movie in which the actual animation of the creature doesn’t take place until ten minutes before the end has obviously got serious issues.

What on Earth is it about for the first hour and a half, then? Well, this being a modern movie, it doesn’t really want to saddle itself with a lot of baggage about sin and hubris and the arrogance of man trying to supplant God in the cosmos, even though this is to a large extent what Frankenstein is actually about. Instead, we get a never-knowingly-underwrought tale of the friendship between Frankenstein and Igor. It’s true that this is an aspect of the Frankenstein story which has never before been explored in detail. On the other hand, this may just be because doing a Frankenstein movie where Igor is the hero is a bafflingly stupid idea.

If nothing else it does suggest a certain familiarity with the James Whale version of Frankenstein from 1931 – although, if we’re going to be strictly accurate about this, the first time a character called Igor appears as Frankenstein’s hunchbacked assistant is in Mel Brooks’ spoof version of the story from 1974. The script seems to treat the whole Frankenstein canon as fair game, anyway, stealing bits from many different versions: Frankenstein needing someone to do the fiddly work for him comes from a couple of the Hammer movies, for example, while the fact that Victor had a brother named Henry Frankenstein is another nod to the 1931 film (in which Frankenstein’s name was changed).

When it starts trying to be its own thing, though, the film generally becomes exasperatingly odd very quickly. Landis seems to be under the impression that the key difference between Victorian London – the exact period is obscure – and the present day is that people wore big hats and cravats and long frocks. Uneducated circus folk are able to pass in high society with no difficulty at all, for instance. There’s also frequent tonal uncertainty – Frankenstein’s initial project is a homuncular beast largely made from bits of chimpanzee, and to be fair it’s an unsettling creation – until you’re reminded that Frankenstein has christened it ‘Gordon’ for no very obvious reason.

One of the main influences on this film is nothing to do with Frankenstein, anyway: Paul McGuigan was the initial director on Sherlock and this is really reminiscent of that show at its most self-consciously stylish. McAvoy’s performance is very much like Cumberbatch at his most shoutily eccentric, while possibly the best thing in the film is Andrew Scott’s performance as a police detective in pursuit of Frankenstein for his own reasons. Even Mark Gatiss turns up, although he only gets one line (you can’t help thinking that Gatiss must have a great Frankenstein adaptation in him somewhere).

I suppose I shouldn’t be too unpleasant about McAvoy, as he’s only playing the character as it was written. You can tell that, in a ‘straight’ adaptation of Frankenstein, he would probably be brilliant. The thing is that I suspect the makers of this film would argue that it is really is a ‘straight’ Frankenstein, and sincerely mean it. But it isn’t. It’s the kind of film where there’s an outbreak of slo-mo or CGI every five minutes, just to stop the audience getting bored, where all of the original ideas have been purged in favour of ‘character-based personal drama’ (i.e. soapy nonsense). The movie’s big idea is that Frankenstein created Igor every bit as much as the more famous creature – well, in this film he does, but then (as we’ve discussed) Igor is hardly a core element of the Frankenstein story, especially not as he’s presented here. So what is the point of this film? What is it actually about? Apart from a few scenes here and there, what has it honestly got to do with Mary Shelley’s story? I can see very little connection, and it’s not even imaginative or competent enough to be as much fun as some of the wackier Hammer Frankenstein sequels. A waste of talent, potential, and time.

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Something curious and historically interesting happened to popular culture in the late 1930s and early 1940s, not that most people would have noticed it at the time: the idea of the shared fictional universe came into existence, where events in one story could have consequences in others that weren’t simply sequels, where characters didn’t just spin off but converged as well. Given that this concept underpins the business plans of a number of major film studios nowadays, we should probably remember that it was rather a derided one for many decades – although even today we’re still talking about the kind of films which aim to make money rather than win awards. The key players, Marvel and DC, are heavily rooted in making superhero movies, although also reputedly having a bash are Universal, with their stable of horror characters.

This seems entirely appropriate given that capes and monsters were where the first fictional universes started to crystallise: the mythos created by Lovecraft, and the DC comics universe kick-started by All Star Comics #3 in 1940, for instance. Both of those were probably happening under most people’s radar – a little more visible, perhaps, was the appearance of Universal’s original shared movie universe, which was inaugurated with Roy William Neill’s Frankenstein Meets The Wolf Man, released in 1943.

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This was the fourth sequel to the iconic Karloff-Clive version of Frankenstein, but to begin with it seems much more strongly linked to The Wolf Man, to which it is the first follow-up (apparently writer Curt Siodmak only suggested the movie as a joke, but didn’t object to being paid to produce an actual script). It opens in that notorious hotbed of lycanthropic savagery, the Welsh countryside, where a couple of unwise locals in unfortunate hats break into the family vault of local big-shots the Talbots, intent on plundering the corpse of prematurely-deceased heir Larry Talbot (Lon Chaney Jr).

However, it turns out that all that ‘shot with a silver bullet’ stuff is not strictly accurate, for four years after his interment Talbot is still alive – apparently being a werewolf makes you immortal! The shock of finding himself not dead means that Talbot ends up in hospital in Cardiff, although quite what happens is a little obscure. Here he meets Dr Mannering (Patric Knowles), who eventually proves to be a rather remarkable individual, and local copper Inspector Owen (Dennis Hoey).

Never mind the Universal Monsters shared-world, for a moment it looks as if another crossover is on the cards, as Dennis Hoey is perhaps best known to modern audiences for his role as the impenetrably thick Inspector Lestrade in half a dozen Basil Rathbone Sherlock Holmes movies, also for Universal. Hoey gives exactly the same performance as Owen as he does as Lestrade, in an identical costume – it’s enough to make you speculate about Lestrade being sent on an undercover mission to the principality, and imagine Rathbone’s Holmes facing off against the various monsters. Not to be, unfortunately.

Anyway, Talbot fangs his way out of his straitjacket and goes on the run in search of a way out of his predicament, eventually catching up with the gypsy Maleva (Maria Ouspenskaya), the mum of the guy who originally bit him. We’re now quite a long way into the movie and I suspect most viewers will be quite relieved when her only suggestion is that they look up a notorious scientist with an unparallelled knowledge of the secrets of life and death, Dr Frankenstein!

Unfortunately, all the various members of the Frankenstein dynasty with medical diplomas have died by the time the duo arrive in Frankenstein’s home village, mostly as a result of the family’s most famous creation going off on one. Talbot and Maleva are thus somewhat stumped, until Talbot stumbles across Frankenstein’s Monster (Bela Lugosi), frozen in ice. This happens quite by chance, by the way: I suppose this is the sort of thing which happens when you are a werewolf who spends most of his time being chased around by mobs of angry villagers.

Once defrosted, the Monster proves extraordinarily helpful in trying to find Frankenstein’s original notes (especially so when you consider that he is supposedly blind at this point and also had his brain replaced in the previous film in the series), but Talbot still has to call upon the help of Frankenstein’s granddaughter (Ilona Massey), a woman who really knows the value of plaits, in order to find what he wants.

At this point Mannering turns up, having tracked Talbot across Europe, and having proven himself to be not just a top doctor but also a remarkable sleuth, reveals he is also a bit of a Frankenstein fanboy. He agrees to rebuild Frankenstein’s lab and use the machinery there to drain the vital energy from both Talbot and the Monster, thus ending the threat of the two monsters forever. What can possibly go wrong…?

You would, I suspect, have to be a particularly sensitive and delicate individual to actually find Frankenstein Meets The Wolf Man frightening or horrific by modern standards. Perhaps the most alarming thing in the film is the obligatory musical number (not performed by either of the title characters, alas), which features startling numbers of fiercely cheerful gypsies and villagers in lederhosen going ‘tra la la’ more than you might imagine possible.

Or perhaps not. Actually frightening, this film is not, but it still possesses a weird, morbid atmosphere, primarily because this is really a film about suicide: the chief motor of the plot is Lawrence Talbot’s desire to die. The film in general and Chaney in particular are not remotely subtle enough for this to be quite as affecting as it could be, but a modern film with this kind of theme would have the potentially to be truly disturbing and unusual.

But then this is obviously the product of another era, when a horror film was still second cousin to a fairy tale, mostly set in ruined castles and graveyards in quasi-mythical lands far across the sea, populated by superstitious villagers and enigmatic gypsies. Good and evil are still almost palpably real, in the world of the film at least. The genre has changed so much as to be almost unrecognisable.

Is it really any good, though? Or – was it any good when it was made, by the standards of the 1930s and 1940s? Perhaps I’m not the best person to ask, for I tend to find the original Universal horror movies painfully slow and lacking in incident, certainly compared to those made by Hammer a generation later. Even The Bride of Frankenstein, the film generally held up to be the zenith of the series, seems to me to be awkwardly self-conscious and twee. Well, anyway: the story is odd enough to be watchable, even if the plotting is rather melodramatic and some of the characterisation highly peculiar – Mannering variously functions as an expository tool, the romantic lead, and the de facto villain, depending on what point in the film we have reached. He briefly goes bad simply to facilitate the climactic battle.

Yup, before Batman Vs Superman, before Alien Vs Predator, before Freddy Vs Jason, before King Kong Vs Godzilla, there was the concluding barney of Frankenstein Meets The Wolf Man. Again, by modern standards the battle is energetic but ultimately quite tame, and it’s pretty brief too. You can see they’re making kind of an attempt to make the two combatants fight in different ways, but it really just boils down to the kind of rasslin’ you might see outside a pub in the small hours of any weekend night. One of the prime rules of the all-star death match is established even this early on – in that the clash is not fought to its natural conclusion with a real winner emerging. In this case, a convenient collapsing dam washes away the venue of the struggle while events are still in progress, the Baroness and Mannering (back to being a mildly heroic figure at this point) having discreetly scarpered by this point.

Then again, the makers of this kind of series always eventually figure out that by killing your monsters off too permanently you’re only making trouble for yourself when it comes to writing the next movie, so I suppose we can’t be too critical on that score. I find it quite hard to be especially critical of Frankenstein Meets The Wolf Man on any grounds – it’s not high art, of course, and it’s just as much a weird collection of disparate bits as Lugosi’s character, but its very oddness gives it a strange charm I find very hard to resist.

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For many years it was more or less accepted that the British Film Industry was moribund or had actually expired, some occasional semblence of life being brought to the cadaver through government assistance or co-productions of various kinds. (These days the issue seems a little more clouded, thanks mainly to the degree to which British talent powers many major international films and the notable success of many comedy films and costume dramas). It’s hard to remember that Britain once had a healthy and significant home-grown industry that turned out movies of all kinds in respectable numbers.

These days, if you come across a British movie on TV, there’s a very good chance it belongs to one of the big three franchises that the industry produced: James Bond, the Carry Ons, or Hammer Horror (I suppose the latter is a brand rather than a franchise, but you know what I mean). Bond was always the most Hollywood-style in its approach and tone, but the other two, rather oddly, do quite a good job of showing just how versatile British films could be.

For example, let’s talk about Terence Fisher’s 1958 film The Revenge of Frankenstein, which from the title alone sounds like something pretty schlocky. This film was made the year after the enormous success of Hammer’s first colour Gothic horror, The Curse of Frankenstein, back-to-back with its first Dracula film, so we’re still in at the birth of the very idea of Hammer Horror – which may be why this isn’t quite the film you might expect it to be.

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The film opens with the execution by guillotine of Baron Frankenstein (Peter Cushing, of course), as featured in the first film – but a nifty retcon reveals that our man switched places with a (presumably rather unwilling) priest at the last second, with the help of a cripple named Karl (Oscar Quitak). Frankenstein sets out to take a terrible revenge on the world which refused to recognise his genius!

Yes, that’s right, he goes into private practice. Three years later, the medical council of the town of Carlsbruck are disgruntled by the success of the brilliant but aloof Dr Stein, who has stolen most of their best-paying patients, as well as doing a lot of work at the hospital for the poor. (The rates of surgical procedures, especially amputations, are soaring.) A delegation is sent to try and get Stein on board.

This has no other effect than to give young Dr Kleve (Francis Matthews, perhaps best known these days as the voice of Captain Scarlet) the chance to clock Stein as the Baron, whom he met several years earlier. Rather than exposing him, Kleve volunteers to become Frankenstein’s new student/assistant, as he sets about his latest exciting project.

Karl is still helping the Baron, and in return Frankenstein has knocked up a new, non-deformed body (Michael Gwynn, perhaps best known these days as Lord Melbury in the first episode of Fawlty Towers), into which he intends to transplant Karl’s brain. Faced with this evidence of his brilliance, how can the world not give Frankenstein the respect which is his due?

As revenge schemes go, it’s one of the most genteel ones out there, and it does involve an impressive amount of community support work. However, as ever, Frankenstein is a bit too keen to overlook some flaws in the plan: post-op, Karl may not be keen to be exhibited as a marvel of transplant surgery, while there is the very small issue of past recipients of this procedure turning into violent cannibals. But that couldn’t happen this time, could it…?

Well, what do you think? Of course it does. The thing is, though, that the censor enjoyed a lot of power back in 1958 and the film is extremely limited in the levels of violence it is permitted to depict, to say nothing of the actual cannibalism. This is left very much implied, with most of the actual work being done by a rather good and pathos-laden performance by Gwynn. Does it completely make up for the fact that Gwynn is the most atypical Frankenstein ‘monster’ in the history of film? I’m not sure. The film works hard to make him tragic as much as horrifying (he gets an odd sort of unrequited romance with a kind-hearted posh girl played by Eunice Gayson, perhaps best known these days as the first of all Bond girls) and his demise arguably occurs a while before the actual climax of the film, which is a bit wrong-footing for the audience.

Then again, the film keeps going off at these odd tangents which aren’t really what you expect from even an early Hammer film. Much of the time this really does resemble a legitimate costume drama more than a horror movie – and not necessarily even a drama. Jimmy Sangster’s script is not short on colourful supporting characters, usually broadly comic in some way – Michael Ripper and Lionel Jeffries come on near the start as a couple of comedy graverobbers, while later on there’s a courting couple who could be the inspiration for the Jim Dale and Angela Douglas characters in Carry On Screaming – and these little vignettes really give the impression you’re watching some sort of weird literary adaptation which keeps erupting into gory surgical mayhem.

A lot of Hammers are a bit minimalist in their dramatis personae – they’re not quite ‘if you’re in shot, you’re in the plot’, but it’s sometimes close to that – but, like I said, this one is an exception, and it’s one which does throw into sharper relief just how class-conscious these films are. All the moral and plot agency is given to the aristocrats and the upper-middle-class characters, the less well-educated and well-spoken ones are just there to be victims or acted upon, or simply comic relief. And, to be fair, amoral monomaniac he may be, but you’d rather spend time with the genteel Baron F than any of the smelly poor people clogging up his hospital.

I’m not sure I’d call The Revenge of Frankenstein a classic Hammer horror, it’s just a bit too odd in its tone and structure for that. But we have to remember that the classic formula was still being conceived when this film was produced, and Hammer probably weren’t even considering the possibility that their future lay largely in making this kind of exploitation film. It almost goes without saying that this film has all the classic Hammer virtues – great costumes, sets, music, and Peter Cushing – but it also looks more like a mainstream movie than most of the others. This may not necessarily make it better, but it certainly makes it distinctive.

 

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As I’ve said before, probably a number of times, Hammer Horror and I go back quite a few years: one night in the early Summer of 1987, to be precise – I’d give you the exact date, but unfortunately BBC Genome seems to have packed up [It’s working again and the exact date was June 27th 1987, if you must know – A]. ‘The Count and the Baron are back in business!’ promised the trailer for a double bill of Dracula, Prince of Darkness and The Evil of Frankenstein, and what can I say? They had me. They have me still.

That said, while Prince of Darkness is a film I have strong memories of, and which I’ve watched countless times in the intervening years – I might even call it the quintessential Hammer horror film – The Evil of Frankenstein is one I never got back to. I don’t even recall it being on TV that often. Looking at it again now, it’s no worse than a lot of other Hammer Horrors… and yet…

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Freddie Francis directs competently, and with moments of real style too. Things get under way with a spot of – well, it’s not even graverobbing, as someone just leaves a freshly-dead body too close to an open window, from whence it is half-inched by a grave-robber in the employ of Baron Frankenstein (Peter Cushing, inevitably). However, the locals put two and two together and soon enough the Baron and his surprisingly loyal assistant Hans (Sandor Eles) are forced to go on the run.

Finding himself financially embarrassed, the Baron decides to head home to his ancestral seat at Karlstadt, only to find it has been ransacked. (Frankenstein insists on referring to his castle, which is obviously a castle because it looks like a castle, as a chateau – a touch of pretension, Baron?) Telling Hans the story of what happened here occasions a fairly lengthy flashback to Frankenstein’s most famous experiment, which involves a stitched-together corpse, a big thunderstorm, and some angry villagers. This concludes with the Baron being run out of town and his creation (Kiwi Kingston) being shot off the top of a mountain by a gun-toting mob.

Events start to repeat themselves and Frankenstein and Hans find themselves having to flee, assisted by a deaf-mute gypsy girl (Katy Wild). As luck (and the magic of plot contrivance) would have it, they wind up taking shelter in a cave under a glacier – and who should be frozen into the glacier in a state of perfect preservation but Frankenstein’s old monster?

Old flat-top is duly defrosted and revived, but his brain is stubbornly dormant. Faced with this dilemma, the Baron makes one of the worst decisions of his career (and with a career like his, that’s saying something), recruiting a sideshow hypnotist named Zoltan to use his mental powers on the monster. Zoltan is played by Peter Woodthorpe, a little-remembered actor these days, but responsible for memorable performances as Reg Trotter in Only Fools and Horses and Gollum in various Lord of the Rings adaptations, and here he has a damn good go at stealing the movie from Cushing.

For Zoltan has an agenda of his own, and it involves using the creature to get rich and get even, regardless of the consequences to anyone around him. Have those blazing torches to hand…

This was Hammer’s third Frankenstein film, not that it matters much. This is, I suppose, a bit of a minor landmark for the company, inasmuch as it marks the first time they casually abandon the existing continuity of a series and start over without any explanation. The film totally ignores the established events of The Curse of Frankenstein and The Revenge of Frankenstein, except in the most general way. In parts this feels like a sequel to another film which was never actually made.

Occasioning all this were some legal doings between Hammer and Universal. The two previous Hammer Frankensteins (which, I say again, have absolutely no narrative links with Evil of Frankenstein) had to tread extremely carefully to avoid intruding on the various trademarks connected with Universal’s cycle of Frankenstein movies, specifically Jack Pierce’s make-up design and any references to dark and stormy nights. By this point the two companies had thrashed something out, and all these things were potentially available to Hammer.

Well, it’s a touching tale of corporations coming together for a common good, but I’m not sure it helped this film very much. The really special thing about the 1930s Frankensteins is not the make-up, but the performer inside it, and inside the monster gear in Evil of Frankenstein is a wrestler from New Zealand who’s given virtually nothing to work with. Never mind that it’s not until the closing stages of the film that he gets a chance to show any kind of pathos or personality, the monster make-up itself is just bad: the creature has a head like an Easter Island statue and appears to be made of clay or stone.

Hammer Frankensteins are all about the Baron, anyway, and Cushing gives another impeccable performance, of course. He’s good even when the film around him is slapdash, as it is here: why is this film called The Evil of Frankenstein (or even, according to the title card, The EVIL of Frankenstein)? We are required to take the Baron’s villainy for granted, because he just comes across as a scientist with some fairly radical and uncompromising beliefs, more sinned against than sinning. When he arrives home and finds his family home has been plundered, Cushing makes it a genuinely poignant moment, and whatever misdeeds are done in the course of the story, they seem to be much more Zoltan’s fault than Frankenstein’s.

Indeed, it’s only really in the stuff with Woodthorpe’s brand of grasping, beady-eyed nastiness that the film really comes to life and has anything more to offer than a selection of empty Frankenstein cliches. And even here credulity has to be throttled until it’s comatose: ‘go and punish the burgomaster for me,’ Zoltan instructs the monster (the nature of his beef with the guy is never really established – it feels like something left over from an earlier draft of the script), which duly lumbers off out of the chateau castle, and in the next scene it’s breaking into the burgomaster’s house. How the hell did it know where to go? Did it stop and ask for directions along the way?

To be fair, the film is stuffed with these kinds of odd non sequiturs and rambling diversions: it doesn’t feel a second too short, even with a very modest running time of only about 85 minutes. One almost gets the feeling that the people at Hammer were so delighted at making the deal with Universal, meaning that they didn’t have to come up with another outrageous variation on the Frankenstein story, that they didn’t bother coming up with any real story worth mentioning. The Evil of Frankenstein sort of meanders along without ever really arriving anywhere, saved from utter bad moviedom only by Cushing and Woodthorpe. Looks aren’t everything, and I know now that going 27 years without watching this movie wasn’t exactly a great privation.

 

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If, like me, you’re one of those people who feels like they’ve spent a fair chunk of their life trying to impress upon people the fact that, no, the iconically flat-topped and electrode-necked techno-revenant whose creation was documented by Mary Shelley is not actually called Frankenstein (that honour, of course, going to the Genevan medical student responsible for the beast), then you are going to be entirely exasperated by Stuart Beattie’s I, Frankenstein, which is troubling cinemas as I write. On the other hand, if we’re discussing popular misconceptions, this film is halfway there.

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Victor Frankenstein himself is briefly in the movie, played by Aden Young, but only at the very start. He pegs out somewhere arctic while pursuing his creature, who has taken the shine off Frankenstein’s honeymoon by strangling his bride. The cobbled-together creature is played by Aaron Eckhart, which just leads one to wonder where Frankenstein found its chin. But anyway.

So far, so surprisingly faithful to Shelley (relatively speaking, and bearing in mind this is up against some very dodgy competition). Needless to say, I, Frankenstein rapidly casts loose from the anchor of authenticity, and quite possibly coherence, when the Creature is attacked by demons in human form while burying his creator. Things look bleak in the ensuing battle until he is rescued by… oh dear… some angelic gargoyles.

The gargoyles, who spend their non-CGI’d moments looking like a bunch of models, whisk the Creature off to their headquarters, which is a big cathedral in an unspecified major city. There we meet the Queen of the Gargoyles (Miranda Otto) who delivers a big and slightly steaming info-dump – another of those hidden supernatural wars is raging, on this occasion between the Queen of the Gargoyles, who basically works for God, and the Prince of the Demons (Bill Nighy), who presumably is in the employ of the other chap. For some reason the demons want to get their claws on Frankenstein’s Monster, and the gargoyles are opposed to this on principle. The Creature himself declares he has no stake in the matter either way and clears off into seclusion.

Two hundred years later he changes his mind though: not for any particularly good reason on his part, but from a marketing point of view it at least stops this from being a costume picture. In the meantime Nighy has recruited a comely young electro-neurologist – does anyone honestly believe that’s a real job? – played by Yvonne Strahovski, intending to replicate Frankenstein’s work. The reappearance of the original creature is bound, therefore, to have some influence on the unfolding events…

Radical reimaginings like Splice notwithstanding, we’ve been waiting a couple of decades for a really imaginative and interesting new version of Shelley’s famous and hugely influential classic. And the wait continues, for I, Frankenstein is thorough-going cobblers of truly epic proportions (having said that, I must express a certain gratitude to the film-makers for limiting the thing to a commendably brief 90 minutes or so in length).

I mean, here’s the thing – we’ve already got the Underworld series floating around in our collective consciousness, and it’s not all that long since the Blade franchise was a going concern, either. So why would you possibly think that making a film which closely apes the look and style of both these things was a good idea? It’s not just derivative, it’s actively dull: and it’s not even as if the makers of this film can claim ignorance, given that I, Frankenstein and Underworld share the same writer.

They also share the same murky modern mise-en-scene and total lack of anything resembling a sense of humour about themselves, not to mention the presence of Bill Nighy as the main villain (it must be said that Nighy’s ability to lift this sort of lamentable material is in and of itself virtually supernatural). Beyond this there is little overt acknowledgement of the rich history of screen Frankensteins – there’s a nod to the famous ‘It’s alive!’ moment from the James Whale version, while a mention of electric eels may be a wink to the Kenneth Branagh take on the story – nor much sign of any real understanding of what makes Frankenstein work as a story.

It seems to me to be a much-overlooked fact that Frankenstein’s Creature is potentially a really good part for the right actor, given the right script. Too often, however, he’s just a grotesque, grunting brute (the Hammer movies in particular were repeat offenders on this score), and the only actors I’ve ever seen give the character the right mixture of intensity and pathos are Boris Karloff (of course) and – here comes an out-of-left-field pick – Michael Sarrazin. Did Aaron Eckhart ever have the potential to join this select band? Well, maybe; Eckhart is a likeable screen presence even in a dog of a movie like this one. But he doesn’t get the material or the direction he needs.

The Frankenstein story is about a lot of things, which is why it has lasted for centuries: it’s about paternal responsibility, man’s relationship with technology and the environment, and so on. But what it isn’t about is endless 3D battles between the CGI’d forces of heaven and hell. You can do a lot of very interesting things with Frankenstein’s Creature, but turning him into a demon-stomping martial arts superhero is not one of them. The action sequences are unengaging and Eckhart isn’t allowed to give the character the presence he requires, nor really the depth – we’re repeatedly reminded that this is someone who once murdered an innocent woman, but the Creature’s moral responsibility isn’t addressed.

I could go on and on. I know this is just meant to be a genre action movie, and not meant to be taken seriously, but if you’re going to use the name of a serious classic novel then you’re opening yourself up to serious criticism. I recall recently bewailing the glut of heavy, lengthy, based-on-reality movies that have been filling up the cinemas of late, and hoping something solely intended to entertain would come along. Well, this may be an attempt in that direction, but it’s a thoroughly botched one. I, Frankenstein sets the bar for this year’s silly action fantasies impressively high – or, depending on your point of view, startlingly low. Steer clear.

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I don’t get paid for writing about films, so why do I do it so much? The same reason I do anything else, I suppose: it seems worthwhile in some way or other. Another question which I get asked less often is why I’m so interested in films which are so old and (from a certain point of view) clunky that many people nowadays find them impossible to engage with.

Well – I don’t see the logic in saying that a film is bad just because it’s old; by that reasoning every film ever made is slowly deteriorating in quality all the time. But I do think that old movies offer us a useful perspective on the world at the time in which they were made, especially genre movies, which I generally find a lot more honest.

All of which is preamble to a look at the 1957 version of The Curse of Frankenstein, directed by Terence Fisher – yes, a bit of a mini-Hammer horror season of late. This particular movie comes loaded with significance – Hammer’s first Gothic horror movie, Christopher Lee’s first really striking lead role, the first colour version of this particular story, Lee’s first on-screen pairing with Peter Cushing…

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Cushing, of course, plays Baron Frankenstein himself. The film has an interesting framing device where a priest turns up at the cell where Frankenstein is being held prior to being guillotined for his terrible crimes – not because the Baron is seeking to repent, but because he wants someone to hear how none of it was really his fault…

Well, that’s a marginal claim at best, as we see. The film flashes back to Frankenstein as a youth (played by Melvyn Hayes from It Ain’t Half Hot Mum, slightly startlingly), coming into his fortune and hiring his own tutor, Krempe (Robert Urquhart). Frankenstein’s brilliant intellect develops apace, and the investigations of the two men turn, almost inevitably, from conventional medical research to a somewhat darker avenue…

And it’s here, to be honest, that we start to see one of the things that marks Curse out as a product of its time. I was a bit indifferent about the Ken Branagh version of Frankenstein last year, but one thing which that telling does do well is to give Frankenstein some kind of motivation for his researches – why is this man so obsessively fascinated with and compelled to explore the secrets of life and death? Branagh answers this question; Fisher doesn’t. This film is more melodrama than drama, in which the plot dictates the characters’ actions rather than vice versa.

So Frankenstein starts assembling his infamous creation on rather dubious pretexts – mainly because the story demands it, as I said. Krempe is unimpressed and eventually refuses to participate, on the grounds that this experiment is obviously obscene. Perhaps it’s another example of cultural standards changing, or possibly it’s just me, but I wouldn’t say that reanimating a corpse is a ghastly crime against nature, per se – don’t we have defibrillators for just that purpose? Yet the film expects us to share Krempe’s opinion, I think.

The need to ensure this may be why Frankenstein himself, who is initially presented as someone unorthodox and slightly fixated but not actually evil, rapidly and not necessarily plausibly turns into a complete fiend. Needing a brain for his creature, he murders a kindly old professor who is visiting his home (sadly the brain gets damaged in a scuffle with Krempe) – and if that wasn’t enough, it is later revealed he has been up to some seigneurial whoa-ho-ho with the maid (Valerie Gaunt), whom he eventually has to dispose of using the Creature.

It’s a bit of a cliche to say this, but the fundamental difference between the Hammer cycle of Frankenstein movies and the Universal series is in their focus – the main character for Hammer is the Baron, while the Universal films are more about the Creature. This is certainly true here, as Christopher Lee doesn’t get much to do until quite late on (in a famous anecdote, he complained to Cushing about not getting any lines – ‘Count yourself lucky, I’ve read the script’ was Cushing’s reply), and he’s certainly more sinned against than sinning. Cushing’s Frankenstein, on the other hand, is definitely a bad guy.

So my memory has been cheating me, it seems – writing about the much later Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell, I observed that Cushing’s Frankenstein was ‘rarely definitively evil’ – well, he certainly is here, originating the character. Possibly I’m letting Cushing’s usual screen persona of decent integrity confuse me, or the actor himself is quietly striving throughout to create a plausible characterisation in parallel with the requirements of the plot.

It all concludes with the usual mayhem, and along the way there are various examples of gleeful nastiness that horrified film critics at the time: severed body parts, acid baths, and a veritable fountain of Kensington Gore when Krempe puts a bullet in the Creature’s head (‘the shot heard round the world’ of horror films, as Mark Gatiss memorably put it a few years ago). This is a film of various creative tensions – first rate actors trying their best with melodramatic schlock, quality costume-drama trappings being laid about a gory B-movie – and perhaps it’s here that the essential magic of the Hammer films is to be found.

Every time I’ve written about one of the ‘first generation’ Hammer horrors in the past – mainly Dracula and The Mummy – I’ve commented, usually negatively, about how polite and well-mannered they were. That’s much less the case with The Curse of Frankenstein – there’s a rich vein of mischievious nastiness going on that still makes it stand out as something unusual, and special: the real origin of the Hammer horror brand, and an enjoyably over-the-top film even today.

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You often hear people talking about proverbially unfilmable books – Ulysses, or A Suitable Boy, or whatever – although, of course, there is a long history of ‘unfilmable’ stories actually making quite decent and occasionally exceptional films, given the right treatment. What seems to me to be less commented-upon is the phenomenon of certain novels being endlessly adapted for film and TV, but never both well and faithfully.

We’re usually talking about ‘classic’ literature here – though it’s getting to the point where certain superhero comics also qualify – and I’m thinking particularly of 19th century Gothic Horror. There have been umpty-tump versions of Dracula, to say nothing of sequels and spin-off movies, and generally the ones that have really succeeded have been the ones with a less reverential approach to the source. The same goes for Frankenstein: this is one of those novels which, in many ways, defines the modern age, and yet I’ve never seen a film adaptation of the book which has really impressed me. (The best version I’ve seen was a TV mini-series from 1973, with Leonard Whiting and Michael Sarrazin in the two lead roles, and even this diverged a lot from the novel in many respects.)

Still, until recently I hadn’t seen the 1994 version of the story, helpfully titled Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein to distinguish it from all those other stories with the same name by other people. Or, perhaps more fully, Francis Ford Coppola’s Kenneth Branagh’s Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, as this was the key talent involved as producer and director.

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Ken Branagh being Ken Branagh, he naturally casts himself as Victor Frankenstein, here a precocious young scientist (there’s no mention of him being nobility this time around, but he is still clearly rich and posh). And Branagh being Branagh, the cast list is also stuffed with British thespians: this does actually resemble a dress-rehearsal for a Harry Potter movie, so many of the performers here moved on to that series.

This movie sticks to the original structure, which opens at the North Pole with some explorers happening upon a desperate Frankenstein being pursued across the ice by… what? Scenes of sled dogs meeting a sticky end suggest we may have wandered into Mary Shelley’s The Thing by mistake, but no. Frankenstein tells his story, with accompanying flashback: traumatised by the premature death of his mum (Cherie Lunghi) – a motivation-bolstering amendation of Shelley – a youthful Frankenstein puts aside his romantic feelings for his adopted sister (Helena Bonham-Carter) and heads off to university, where he finds himself drawn to forbidden areas of research. Despite the misgivings of his mentor (John Cleese, playing it straight behind some rather peculiar dentures), he sets about manufacturing a perfected form of human life – and when that mentor is pointlessly murdered, Frankenstein instantly sees a way for his patron to live on. Well, bits of him, anyway…

The artificial man created by Frankenstein’s experiments is not quite what our hero was expecting, and in the context of the movie he cuts a striking, unusual figure, mainly because he is played by Robert de Niro rather than another of Ken’s luvvie mates. Frankenstein tries to get rid of his creature almost at once, and believes it has perished in a cholera outbreak. Henceforth swearing off unholy experiments and demarcation disputes over the provision of the vital spark, our man heads home to marry his sister. Sorry, adopted sister.

However, the Creature has survived, and wandered into an 18th century episode of The Good Life. Hiding out in the pig sty of elderly smallholder Richard Briers, the Creature learns to read, speak, and generally make sense of the world around him. Yes, this bit does stretch credulity a bit, but the film tries hard to make it work, and I think there’s an even dodgier subplot in the book about a fleeing Arabian princess which has actually been cut. Eventually the Creature decides he has not been treated properly by his creator and sets off to demand reparations…

This is a good-looking, pacy movie, and for the most part reasonably faithful to the book – much moreso, it has to be said, than either of the most famous versions from Hammer or Universal. The cast is good and there is nothing particularly bad about the script or direction either.

And yet I couldn’t really say this was a great Frankenstein. I know this film has drawn a good deal of sniggery criticism for the sheer number of scenes in which Ken Branagh runs around in leather trews with his shirt off, the suggestion being that this is evidence of a certain self-regard on the the director’s part. I’m inclined to cut Ken some slack on this front, not necessarily because there is something thematic about overweening vanity going on – though I’ve heard this argued – but because it does tie into a sort of Romantic hyperactivity which is central to this film.

Ken’s a bright bloke and he has clearly settled on the famous connection between Frankenstein and the Romantic poets as being a worthwhile line of attack. And so it is that the emotional pitch of this movie is never knowing understated. People are never happy in this film, they are convulsed with ecstatic joy; they never just dance, they hurl themselves across the screen while the camera swoops around them; they never just grieve, they are consumed with devastating, paralysing despair. The film is always turned up to 11, and considering how fast the story rattles along the results are desensitising, not to mention exhausting – you never have a moment to catch your breath and really think about what’s happening in the story.

This is a shame, as Frankenstein is obviously a story loaded with ideas, and this version of it doesn’t really get a chance to explore them. The handling of the relationship between Frankenstein and the Creature is, surely, central to whether or not a version of this story works – and this one is just about there, but no more, simply because they don’t really share enough screen time.

And this doesn’t really work as a horror movie for most of its length, either. The film tries hard to be credible and avoid the cliches of other versions – but substituting the iconic bolt of lightning with a shoal of trained electric eels is not a decision I would personally have gone for. The moment in which the eels are let loose is central to all of the creation sequences in this film and I suppose it’s a minor miracle they do not become unintentionally funny as a result. Needless to say, the eels are not in the book; nor is a sequence in which Frankenstein and the Creature find themselves in a very strange love triangle with a ‘bride’ character. This is the bit of the film which actually does work as a piece of horror, all about twisted passions and dangerous obsessions – but it comes very late and it’s over too soon.  (In contrast, the major plot point that Frankenstein is in a quasi-incestuous relationship with his adopted sister is barely explored.)

So I would say this movie is okay, both as a movie and as a version of Frankenstein. I suppose this is a bit of a disappointment given the magnitude of the talents involved in making it, but there you go. Full marks for trying to be faithful to the novel (eels excepted), and also to Ken for finding an interesting new take on the original material. But it doesn’t quite (ha, ha) bring Frankenstein or his creation fully to life.

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